Backpacking in the John Muir Wilderness

We left San Diego last night, leaving our house around 7:30 and arriving in Bishop, CA at 1:15 am. We spent the night in a very economy motel, the Elms Motel. (Motto: “Quiet, Clean, & Reasonable!” I don’t make this stuff up.) Posh accommodations compared with the wilderness, of course (ooh, flushing toilets!).

We left the motel and made a quick stop at Big K to get a tiny bottle of contact solution, then went to the Inyo National Forest Ranger Station to get our backcountry permits. It was surprisingly easy. We also grabbed an information sheet for the trailhead, which turned out handy because it listed the altitudes for the places we were hiking.

Then we drove out of Bishop at around 9:00 am, taking 168 West into the Sierras. This seemed nutty to us, since Hwy 168 leaves my parents hometown of Clovis going east into the Sierras, but of course the two do not connect. It’s kinda hard to build a freeway over 13,000-foot peaks.

Dave & Jenn at Lake Sabrina parking lotInstead, on the eastern side, Hwy 168 West dead-ends into Lake Sabrina, at an altitude of 9,125 feet. This is where our hike was to begin. We got there around 9:30 am. The designated parking area for backpackers is about 0.5 mi down the road from the lake. We parked and got out of our car and it was chilly! I had been pondering whether or not to bring my jacket, and this made the decision easy. The sun had not yet come up over the hill we were parked next to, and it was not at all warm yet.

We laced up our hiking boots and put on our backpacks (mine weighing in around 20 lbs, and Dave’s at 30 lbs) and started hiking up the road to the trailhead. When we got to Lake Sabrina, we spent a few minutes using our water filter to fill up our extra water bottles and watching some fishermen in the creek flowing out of the lake. One guy actually caught a fish as we were watching.

We finally hit the trail about a quarter after 10. I wanted to take it relatively slowly. My head and sinuses were adjusting to the pressure, and we were both already starting to get out of breath due to the altitude. We had no idea how much the altitude would affect our ability to climb the trails.

Lake SabrinaAs we took the trail from the northeast corner of Lake Sabrina around the eastern side, the trail climbed steadily but was not too steep. We enjoyed the views of the lake, where the aspens were displaying some very nice fall colors – lots of yellow and some orange. It was the most beautiful day – not a cloud in the sky, and a nice temperature once we got into the sun.

We looked over at the dam and the marina, and noticed a bunch of classic cars driving up the road into the parking lot. Dave said that he remembered reading that there was supposed to be a big classic car show in Bishop this weekend. As we hiked, we also saw a woman with a camera on a tripod, shouting orders to a guy in a canoe on the lake. She had a brown shaggy puppy with her, a lab/retriever mix. Dave and I surmised they must be doing some kind of photo shoot. The scenery, and the guy’s red jacket and green boat, were perfect for the purpose.

Waterfall along trailAround 11:15 am we passed the trail that branches off to George Lake, indicating that we had gone about 1.5 mi (not including the 0.5 mi from the parking spot to the trailhead). Not too far after that, we came to a waterfall, where we had a quick snack of trail mix, and pumped some more water. It’s very important to drink a lot of water at high altitudes, in an attempt to supplement the diminished amount of oxygen you get from the air.

After climbing some rather steep switchbacks, where a good bit of the trail man-made granite staircases, we had a last beautiful vista of Lake Sabrina at what was probably 9,900 feet. Then, heading south, we left Lake Sabrina behind and started looking forward to Blue Lake.

As we hiked, there was another pair we keep seeing and ended up chatting with a bit. One of the guys seemed to be having an even tougher time than I was. I told him it was because of the altitude, and he said he hoped it was that, instead of that he was just getting old. (He was probably in his mid-40s.) We assured him it wasn’t that.

At some point we had all stopped to catch our breath for a minute and a lone guy came up the trail with a huge black Lab. He caught the dog’s collar, but when we greeted the dog, the guy said, “Do you mind?” And I said, “Of course not,” just in time for the guy to add that the dog jumps. Being already somewhat unbalanced from the backpack and slight dizziness from the altitute, I thought the dog might knock me over, but he jumped fairly gently. The guy said the dog’s name was Tobias. He was an awesome dog. We asked the guy where he was coming from, and he said Midnight Lake. That was where we were aiming for. We asked him if the trail between here and there was easier than the trail we had just climed. He looked tentative. “Maybe just a little bit,” he said. I wasn’t very encouraged by that, because I was feeling pretty beat already.

Jenn disapproving of snowWhen we finally turned our back to Lake Sabrina and looked forward on the trail, we could see bits of snow in some cracks in the mountains across the ravine. As we continued along the trail, we noticed that there was snow just across from us – at a lower level than our feet. We had gone above the snow line! Just a few minutes later, as we climbed some more fairly steep switchbacks, the snow lined the shady edge of the trail at our feet. After an entire summer, there was still snow on the mountain – but of course this was after a year of record snowfall.

Finally, around 1:45 pm, we reached Blue Lake, 3 miles from the trailhead. It had been a pretty challenging hike – pretty steep other than the the first mile or so, and fatiguing because of the altitude.

We ate lunch at the northern tip of Blue Lake. We ate salami, peanut butter, and Ritz crackers, and dried fruit. We had a bit of drama with the peanut butter because the squeeze tube broke right after I started using it, and we had to use first aid tape to try to hold it together. Then we had to fend off an overly curious chipmunk who got a little too close trying to find out what we were eating for lunch.

While we were eating, we did a time check to see how far we had come, and how far we had gone. We still had about 3 more miles left to get to Midnight Lake. By now it was nearing 2:30 pm. It had taken us two and a half hours to go the first 3 miles, and the tip we got from Tobias’ owner indicated that it would probably take at least that long to go the next 3 miles (maybe longer, since we were getting more and more tired). We looked at the map and decided that we shouldn’t try to push ourselves to get to Midnight Lake. Instead, we would see how it went and would evaluate the next couple of lakes we came to, to see what kind of camping was available there and how tired we were feeling.

We crossed over the creek that flowed north out of the lake, refilled our water bottles, then slowly made our way along the western side of the lake. It was very beautiful, and it was a lovely day. A lot of people hike in just this far and camp here at Blue Lake, and I can see why.

It wasn’t until around 3 pm that we left the Blue Lake area, and continued down the trail. The trail continued to climb, in some sections more steep than others. There was one section that was obviously in shade around the clock, and was still totally iced over for several yards. It had dirty melting snow on both edges of the trail, and it gave me flashbacks to Boston sidewalks in late February / early March. I couldn’t believe I was walking on something like that in California in October.

A few minutes later we found ourselves at Emerald Lakes. I was getting pretty tired, and there looked to be some good flat spaces for camping. It was 3:30 at this point, and Dave convinced me that we could make it to the next lake, called Dingleberry Lake. According to the trail description, we estimated that it would only take us about another half hour, and the mape it look like the trail wasn’t too steep.

Jenn at Dingleberry LakeOur estimate turned out to be right. Not long after 4 pm, the trail was going up over some granite ridges, and Dave said, “I spy with my own eye – a lake!” And I said, “Hooray!” Indeed it was Dingleberry Lake (elevation: 10,490 feet), down in a little valley below us, surrounded by tall mountain peaks. We scouted a bit from our high vantage point on the trail, and noticed that there were some people camping at the northern tip of the lake. We thought we saw some good camping spots on the other side of them, more toward the northwest corner of the lake. So we scrambled down the slope from the trail and headed toward the lake. Before we even reached the other campers, we noticed a spot that seemed to be nice. Then Dave hiked a bit further and found a spot that was grassier, next to a boulder (that would hopefully provide some wind shelter… although the small patch of snow beneath it should have been a hint) and with a view of the lake. Perfect! By now it was around 4:30 pm.

Dingleberry LakeWe rested for just a little bit, and then started setting up our tent. It wasn’t long before the sun disappeared behind the tall peak on the other side of the lake. We weren’t likely to have light for much longer.

Around 6 pm, we started dinner. We had a tiny camp stove and some cooking equipment designed for backpacking. We boiled some water and made boil-in-bag rice. I had chopped up some bellpeppers and onions a few days before and then froze them, and wrapped them in some paper towels and plastic and packed them. It made the whole bear canister smell like peppers. Once I sauteed them in a bit of vegetable oil, though, and added Mrs. Dash and a package of tuna, it was smelling yummy. We put the rice onto our plates and served the tuna-veggie mixture on top of it, and it was delicious.

The wind had started to pick up right as we began making dinner, and with the sun gone, it was getting really chilly. Dave decided against heating up some water to wash the dishes, and his fingers were getting numb trying to wash the dishes in cold water. We did what we could, though, and then packed all the food and trash into the bear canister. We stashed it under some fallen trees a little way from our tent, and then got into the tent and hunkered down for the night.

It was only 7:00 pm, and Dave wondered how we could possibly go to sleep at such an early hour. We only chatted for a little while, though, before we realized how sleepy we were. We probably fell asleep around 7:30 pm.

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